Mormonism Generates Unhappiness

Making the corporate structure more important, sight is lost regarding individual and family happiness

From The Salt Lake Tribune


"... tithing is a commandment; you are admonished to continue to pay a full tithe regardless of your circumstances. Please do not bring us your problems, he counseled. Just follow the program and you will be blessed."


Corporate Culture Puts Too Much Stress On LDS Members

Sunday, January 27, 2002


Several years ago while recovering from depression, I found solace etched on a classroom wall at the Catholic university where I work. The inscription read: "The Glory of God is you, fully alive." Often I have pondered the significance of what it means to be fully alive and conclude that it is anchored in transcendence.

Recovering alcoholics, for instance, may encounter transcendence in the realization that their lives have become utterly broken and beyond their control. Becoming whole amid the craziness of our personal Gethsemanes entails surrender to a higher power. It is in surrender of the utter hopelessness of our human condition that ultimately we may discover God's gift for us; that we may find hope in the discovery of new pathways out of dysfunction and pain. Transcendence, I believe, is pure gift; it is universal, it is infinite, and it is free. In my native Mormon faith, transcendence is purchased as part of ". . . the great mediation of all men . . ." by Jesus Christ. It is the "lightness of being" celebrated by Book of Mormon Prophet Nephi as he emerges from melancholia: "Awake, my soul! . . . Rejoice, O my heart . . . Men are, that they might have joy."

Utahns, however -- and perhaps Mormons in general -- appear to have neither a corner on transcendence nor joy. A recent pharmaceutical study reveals that the state with the highest rate of Mormon affiliation also has the nation's highest rate of anti-depressant use. In pondering this discontinuity, I have studied the church's control structure analogous to the organizational studies I assign students in my graduate course on control theory in nonprofit organizations. My hypothesis is that the outcomes produced by some programs are at times significantly at variance with scriptural and provident living goals. Often, rather than fostering a culture supportive of individuals becoming fully alive, these programs encourage male members, particularly, to endure to the end in mortal struggles that serve the ends of the organization. Often, I believe, depression is the outcome.

The Model: A generic example used by our class is church-related. Organizations engage in strategic planning from time to time to refine "mission" within the context of an operating environment. From the mission are distilled "programs," or discrete action plans. A hypothetical church may have as a mission statement, for instance, "saving souls." In turn, mission is articulated with goals for each of the church's various programs, such as Sunday school. So in this illustration the organization's mission of saving souls is translated into a program goal of saving souls through Sabbath instruction.

But goal-driven outcomes -- like salvation -- tend to be nonspecific and therefore difficult to measure. So outputs are tracked instead. Outputs are more specific and measurable than outcomes, and driven by objectives. For instance, a measurable output objective might be to increase Sunday school attendance 20 percent next year. After a year's operation, however, output may have "underperformed" the target objective. The organization may then revise the objective, or fine-tune the program so that it better serves the objective. This cyclical process of operating, comparing actual output with target output, revising and fine-tuning -- then operating again -- is called "programming." In the Sunday school example, (re)programming might be revealed in personnel reassignments, for instance, or alternately the program objective might be revised downward, from 20 percent to perhaps 10 percent.

Note the act of faith that connects outputs (driven by the objective to boost Sunday school attendance) with more general outcomes (driven by the goal to save more souls). Nonprofit organizations -- churches included -- almost always operate in faith that if the requisite output is produced (increased Sunday school attendance), then the desired outcome (saved souls) will follow. Sometimes, however, producing outputs does not lead to the creation of intended outcomes, suggesting that the programming process should be revisited.

Mormon Control Structure: The modern precedent for formal church programming systems began in the 1950s and 1960s with what was then called Priesthood Correlation, as the church began to position itself globally. Later, formal strategic planning in the 1970s identified a three-fold mission: proclaiming the gospel (missionary work), perfecting the Saints (ongoing church work), and redeeming the dead (temple work). In turn, elements of the tripartite mission serve as outcome goals for various church programs, such as adult Priesthood, Relief Society, youth and children's programs, etc. An example of an outcome goal might be for all adult Priesthood holders to be temple-endowed. An example of an output objective connected with the same goal might be for 10 percent of unendowed adult Priesthood holders to become endowed in any given year.

Stellar membership growth over the past half-century has led to the decentralization of uniform, carefully packaged programs originating in Salt Lake City, with "quality control" overseen by regional representatives and backed up by frequent visits from general authorities. Church members visiting any part of the world, for instance, may experience program uniformity in that Sunday lessons delivered there are identical to those delivered on the same Sunday back home.

Semi-annual General Conference is the venue in which members are admonished to strive ever higher in the pursuit of gospel ideals and the attainment of the goals of specific church programs. Conference talks, however, tend to be short on the imposition of measurable program objectives, such as boosting convert baptisms by a certain percentage. It is at the local level that program objectives are set, and output is measured and reported.

A typical ward contains about 400 members, presided over by a lay bishop who serves approximately five years, and is the level at which most church programs operate. It is at the stake level, however, that the control structure becomes instrumental. Stakes typically contain seven or eight wards, presided over by a lay president who serves for approximately 10 years and is assisted by two lay counselors, analogous to the two counselors who assist each bishop. Also reporting to the stake president is an oversight body -- the stake high council -- whose dozen members make regular visits to wards to ensure conformity with standardized programs. Stakes receive monthly reports from wards that include the number of ward members eligible for participation in any program and the percentage not participating. Annually a ward conference is conducted by the stake that includes progress reviews and new target objectives for each program. For instance, a ward with five convert baptisms in the preceding year may be challenged to achieve 10 the next year. The performance of stakes is assessed by regional and visiting general authorities: evaluation criteria may include convert baptisms, percentage of stake members paying a full church tithe, percent of males worthy to be called to stake leadership positions, etc.

In effect, "follow the living prophet" means "follow church programs." The progress of adult members toward mastering church programs may be reviewed by the bishop at the annual renewal of one's temple recommend, which adult Mormon faithful are expected to carry, regardless of proximity to a temple. Members answer standardized questions posed by the bishop that pertain to conformity with payment of a full church tithe and the sustaining of the church's leadership, among others. Interview questions are repeated in a follow-on interview with the stake president, who then countersigns with the bishop that the member is in good standing and worthy to be admitted to the temple. Members are also expected to attend a year-end meeting with the bishop to declare the payment of a full church tithe, which declaration becomes part of the permanent church record.

Faithful members sustain the church as the literal manifestation of the Kingdom of God on Earth and pledge unwavering support for its programs and leaders. When the several programs are administered in love by charismatic stake and ward leaders, the "organization culture" may be buoyant, particularly during times of expansion. But a "corporatist culture" may also prevail, particularly in jurisdictions that fail to produce ever-higher program outputs. For instance, during the economic recession a decade ago, the president of a Western Washington stake chastised his congregation in the presence of a visiting general authority. We are aware of the economic difficulty some of you are experiencing, he observed. However, he continued, tithing is a commandment; you are admonished to continue to pay a full tithe regardless of your circumstances. Please do not bring us your problems, he counseled. Just follow the program and you will be blessed.

This arguably insensitive counsel is remarkable for two reasons. First, particularly in austere economic times, this move-the-wagons organization style was neither refuted nor softened by the general authority that followed him at the podium, implying concurrence. Second, in the weeks following the address his comments did not become the object of recrimination by economically struggling stake members. Perhaps they blamed themselves for not producing individual outcomes as "worthy" as those produced by some other members, and therefore they suffered in silence.

Mormon faithful are particularly motivated to maintain eligibility to attend the temple, where families are "sealed" for eternity. Members are cautioned not to "break the link" among generations of other temple-sealed family members, and failure to qualify for attendance at marriages and sealings may provoke emotional upheaval in the absentee's family. Indeed, fear of the denial of temple blessings is the ultimate lynchpin in the incentive system undergirding the church's control structure.

Mormon converts may be attracted initially by humanist messages, devoid of the quantitative objectives awaiting them. Many, of course, look favorably upon the engineered lifestyles that may describe their Mormon friends and acquaintances. Once baptized, converts are immediately introduced into the church control structure with the challenge to set a goal and set a date for attaining it. "Set a goal, set a date" is a corporate-style management-by-objectives strategy, the end in this case being to make converts temple-ready within as little as a year. A danger, of course, is that some members may attain the ultimate objective of temple attendance without attaining the essential "A-HA" experience that is indicative of transcendence.

Conclusions . . . and Conumdrums: An organization consultant might recommend as follows:

1) Revise the mission statement. Redirect missionary work and temple work from the mission to the program structure. In reconstructing the mission, draw upon the rich fount of Mormon scripture on the universal and transcendent nature of Christ's redemptive mission. Reach for the inclusiveness implied in Joseph Smith's Thirteenth Article of Faith: ". . . If there is anything virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things."

2) Open up the church's control structure. Make programming more transparent so that lay members (especially women) may also have direct input into assessments of program effectiveness and plans for revision.

3) Relax somewhat the heavily prescriptive path for Mormon males that universally requires Scouting and missions for the young, and through the Priesthood establishes adult males as the locus of the church control structure in the home. Encourage male as well as female transcendence, and grant sufficient organizational slack to males to encourage the process of self-discovery.

4) Perhaps borrow a chapter from the Catholics, whose hierarchical culture also prescribes doctrinal infallibility for its leadership. Four decades ago "Vatican II" undertook a paradigmatic soul-searching to update the church and reposition it within its contemporary environment.

The result shifted the Mass away from Latin and turned the celebrant priest symbolically away from the altar, toward his congregation. Arguably, the most significant contribution of Vatican II has been to release members somewhat from the enforced orthodoxy of their organization's control structure, to pursue more personalized spirituality.

The conundrum, of course, is that there is no space for any significant reorganization in the Mormon structure. The divine mission of the Mormon church is self-evident; it is to continue to perform the work in which it is engaged. It is a concrete undertaking. The ironclad linkage between output, outcome and mission leaves little room for organizational introspection, therefore little room for transcendence for those adhering strictly to its precepts.

One might conclude that the church has painted itself into a corner. Mormon faithful appear evermore as "organization people," clinging ever tightly to a corporate model of working to win eternal life. In a sense, then, the church may become a victim of its own successes. On the one hand it is flooded with new converts -- many from Third World nations choosing Mormonism as a literal self-help path out of despair. These victories, on the other hand, may be won at the cost of losing many humanist-oriented converts and members who also seek some institutional democracy, more transcendence and less engineered lifestyles.

The Mormon church has painted itself into seemingly hapless corners before, on issues including polygamy and access to the Priesthood by some people of color. No other mainstream American religious organization has better demonstrated openness to paradigmatic shifts without losing track of its core values. In the end it is core values that serve as beacons to the disaffected and the distraught. Hopefully the Mormon church will transform itself, again, through revelation, to reach out more effectively through its core values to Christian humanists, even as it presses ever more diligently to bring the disenfranchised of the world into its fold.


James E. Sawyer is a political economist and professor at Seattle University. He grew up in Ogden and graduated from Weber State University and the University of Utah.

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Page Modified: January 30, 2002